Road Map to Mobility New Software Blazes Barrier-Free Trails for Wheelchair Users

Getting from A to B is complicated for wheelchair users as steps and stairs easily block their way. But now a new mapping software which charts barrier-free routes is opening up new perspectives.
Von Khuê Pham

Life sciences student Anette von Laffert is rushing to get to a rugby game. She hurries quickly down an alleyway but suddenly stops at the sight of an obstacle: a pair of steps. Oh no, she thinks. Here we go again.

Or rather: Here we don't go again. For a wheelchair user like her, stairs are an insurmountable barrier, so she has to turn around and start all over again -- which is extremely frustrating. Getting from A to B is everything but straightforward when you can't walk.

Fortunately things could soon take a new direction: A specialist mapping software which charts barriers like steps or road damage is currently being developed by a group of Laffert's fellow students at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.

Laffert, who has been wheelchair-bound since a horse-riding accident 8 years ago, was among the first to test the program -- dubbed "Trailblazers" -- and says: "This could change my life."

Trailblazers is the brainchild of four ambitious post-graduate IT students: Martin Stein, Sven Stegelmeier, Mark Thomé and Piotr Bendt. Stein, who knows many wheelchair users and even had a spell in a wheelchair himself after an accident, came up with the idea of developing the specialist software early last year. "I know from experience how wheelchair-unfriendly the world is," he says. "I wanted to do something about it."

An odyssey of obstacles

The main problem is that most streets and public transport stations are extremely difficult to navigate: Steps or stairs can make access impossible, while ramps or lifts are rare or hard to find. "For every journey wheelchair users want to take, they have to find a barrier-free route," explains Stein. As any journey can easily turn into an odyssey of obstacles, the incentive to stay at home is often greater than the motivation to venture out.

The idea behind the Trailblazers software, which users will be able to download free onto their cell phones or PDAs, is to systematically collect and distribute information about barrier-free routes. Before -- or even during -- a trip, users will be able to enter start and destination points in order to map their route using Microsoft Virtual Earth or Google Earth. The actual journey is then recorded along the way using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Road obstacles can be photographed and uploaded together with the new map -- meaning new data is continually being added to the existing information.

There are, however, several problems. The main one is what developer Thomé calls the "chicken and egg" dilemma: Initially, only the pre-programmmed material will be available, meaning regional coverage will be limited to begin with. "We depend on the users to expand it," he says.

Another potential problem is the hardware: In order for Trailblazers to work, the phones or PDAs have to be equipped with a GPS receiver -- so older models will have to be upgraded. Lastly, there is the question of whether recording the users' movements could violate their privacy under German law.

Tester Anette von Laffert is convinced that these issues will not prevent Germany's estimated 800,000 wheelchair users taking to Trailblazers with the same enthusiasm as her. "Many wheelchair users spend a lot of time at home surfing the Internet so I'm sure they'll be happy to upload new routes," she says. And the privacy problem could be solved by making the journey recording process anonymous, the software developers argue.

Price may be a bigger problem, however. While Laffert believes that most people would be ready to shell out extra cash for a GPS-compatible device or upgrade, which costs around €50, Wolfgang Doege from the Hamburg Central Association for the Disabled points out that many disabled people live on social benefits -- and hence might not be able to afford the technology.

But Laffert feels the freedom is definitely worth it. She thinks the software could increase a disabled person's self-confidence and decrease their dependence on carers and state support. "I would be much more self-reliant than I am now, for example I could go out shopping by myself," she says. "I would also be more adventurous with going to new places."

After testing the prototype on their university campus, the team is now adding the finishing touches to it. They're currently working on a voice recognition function for people who are unable to operate handheld devices. If it all goes according to plan, the software will be available for free on the Trailblazers Web site  from May.

Depending on the success of the site, there may be even an English-language version in the future -- which would open up the software for use internationally. "Traveling to other countries -- now that's what I'd really like to do more of," says Laffert.

More than just a map

Even in its development stage, Trailblazers has been a success. At last year's Microsoft Imagine Cup -- an annual competition for people developing new products using Microsoft software -- it earned the team first place on the national level and seventh on the international level. Their performance won them a $35,000 Microsoft grant for further product development, and Bill Gates even congratulated them on their "fantastic" entry.

More money could be made in the future: Navigation software has been selling like hot cakes and Trailblazers, which has several other possible uses, could turn out to be a hit. The German city of Kiel has expressed an interest in trying it out for their planned transport website, which will show not only public transport routes but also street conditions like construction sites, according to Martin Dexler from the city's official Web site.

British Telecom is also knocking on the door of the Trailblazers team. "We're very keen on getting involved with Trailblazers," says Steve Konya, who runs the IT projects department and who was one of the judges at last year's Imagine Cup final. "It's a superb idea and the potential for developing it further is huge."

Konya envisions a new form of social networking based on mapping, where people use the software to find others in the same area. "It could even create a new type of online community," he says. "They may have tapped into something completely new without realizing it."

The corporate interest is crucial for the project's success. "It's a good product but it won't work without enough financial investment," says Doege, pointing out that there have been similar ideas in the past, for example navigation aids for blind people, which failed because of cost issues. "The problem is that disabled people are not very attractive to the market," he says.

But developers Thomé and Stegelmeyer are optimistic, and point out that anyone can downland and use Trailblazers to create specialist interest groups and exchange maps amongst each other. Joggers, for example, could create and distribute maps of the best jogging tracks, while parents with small children could use the software to find the most stroller-friendly way through town.

And there are even people who might be interested in finding routes which specifically have plenty of obstacles. "Skateboarders looking for places to do tricks could use the software to create maps with as many stairs and steps as possible," says Thomé.

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